The Dallas Cowboys reclaimed the NFC East and got back to the playoffs by virtue of their 10-6 record in the regular season. They did this on the strength of their young defense, on the legs of the NFL's leading rusher, and with an assist from the midseason acquisition of wide receiver Amari Cooper.
However, despite winning 10 games, Dallas was once again eliminated in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, this time by the Los Angeles Rams. After beating Seattle at home in the wild-card game, the Rams ran over, around, and through the Cowboys on their way to a 30-22 victory.
So the Cowboys' Super Bowl drought now stands at 23 seasons, which is something that does not sit well with owner/general manager Jerry Jones. The good news is that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Dallas will remain a contender next season but that doesn't mean there's not some work to do over the next several months either.
3 Biggest Offseason Questions Facing the Dallas Cowboys
1. Coaching staff's future
Jason Garrett has just one year left on his contract. Although an extension is something that has been mentioned frequently and appears to be a fairly safe bet, nothing is official until it happens. Garrett is 77-59 as the Cowboys' head coach with three division titles, but he's just 2-3 in the playoffs and has never led his team past the Divisional Round.
There's no denying Jones is a fan of Garrett and to his credit, he's second in franchise history in both wins and tenure, but is he the right man to lead Dallas back to the Super Bowl? One former Cowboy doesn't think so.
T.O.'s opinion aside, it would be a surprise if Garrett doesn't get an extension at some point. But the timing and contract length are two things worth keeping an eye on.
Garrett did say shortly after Saturday's loss to Los Angeles that he wasn't expecting significant changes to his coaching staff, but again, he's not the man who will make the final decision. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been under fire before and even though Dallas won 11 games, the offense ranked 22nd overall in both yards and points per game. And that's with the NFL's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, leading the way.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was a pleasant surprise this season, as young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith helped the Cowboys finish ranked among the top seven in terms of total yards, rushing yards and points allowed per game.
Unfortunately, coordinator Rod Marinelli's unit got run over in the playoff loss to the Rams, giving up 273 yards on the ground in total, most of the damage being done by C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley. Is Marinelli's job in jeopardy as a result? That seems unlikely, but one thing worth considering is the presence of defensive backs coach Kris Richard.
The former Seahawks defensive coordinator has been credited as one of the reasons for Dallas' defensive improvement and his future has become a hot topic. He interviewed for a few of the recent head coaching vacancies, including Miami, which hasn't officially filled its opening although the Dolphins are reportedly targeting New England assistant Brian Flores.
Either way, Richard figures to remain one of the hot candidates for any future opening, unless Jones makes it clear he wants Richard to remain with the Cowboys. Does that mean Marinelli and Richard will end up sharing defensive coordinator duties? Or could Jones just cut ties with Marinelli and hand the defensive reins over to Richard?
At minimum, there figure to be some minor tweaks with Dallas' coaching staff. But the potential for significant turnover is there as well.
2. DeMarcus Lawrence's contract negotiations
Lawrence is a two-time Pro Bowler who has racked up 25 sacks the last two seasons. After playing under a one-year franchise tender, he will be arguably the most sought-after player in free agency... should he get there. Dallas can apply the franchise tag to Lawrence once again, but he said back in July that he would not play under those circumstances, and it makes more sense for the Cowboys to lock up their defensive anchor with a long-term contract.
Cap space should not be a problem for Dallas, as the Cowboys have nearly $55 million to work with, according to overthecap.com. Lawrence isn't going to come cheap, but he's also shown he's worth the investment and he won’t turn 27 until late April. It should just be a matter of time before the two sides come to an agreement, but how smoothly the negotiations proceed is something definitely worth keeping an eye on.
3. Offensive supporting cast
Jones grabbed headlines when he traded for Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper in late October. The price (Cowboys' first-round pick this year) was steep but Cooper quickly proved he was worth it. In just nine regular-season games, Cooper led his new team in receiving yards (725) and had twice as many touchdown catches (six) as anyone else on the roster.
With Cooper and Elliott both entrenched, Dallas has one of the best WR-RB combinations in the entire league. There are some questions as it relates to the pieces around them, however. For starters, wideout Cole Beasley and tight end Geoff Swaim are pending free agents. Beasley was second to Elliott in receptions and second only to Cooper in yards (672). He has been a reliable target for Dak Prescott but the team may be willing to let him go as rookie Michael Gallup saw his role increase as the season progressed. Swaim was one of four tight ends who tried to fill the departed Jason Witten's shoes. Blake Jarwin was the most productive of the quartet, but the Cowboys may choose to go in an entirely different direction at the position either through free agency or the draft.
And then there's the offensive line. Dallas has invested heavily in this position, first in the draft and then in handing out long-term contracts, and the Cowboys have benefitted from this strategy. But this group has some questions of its own, starting with center Travis Frederick. The All-Pro missed the entire season after he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, in late August. In December, Frederick said he was optimistic about being able to return in 2019 but Dallas has to plan for the alternative. Joe Looney started every game at center in Frederick's absence. He is a pending free agent.
In addition, All-Pro guard Zack Martin dealt with multiple knee injuries during the season. Even though he missed just two games (first of his five-year career), the Cowboys need to make sure he is 100 percent healthy by the time training camp starts up again. Don't be surprised if Dallas doesn't bring in a new face or two up front, if for no other reason to ensure its critical pieces are ready to go when the season starts.
And don't forget about the guy these well-paid linemen protect either. The 2019 season will be the final year of Prescott's rookie deal. He was a different quarterback following the acquisition of Cooper, but he has still yet to throw more than 23 touchdown passes in a season and there are still plenty of questions about his future potential.
At this point, the Cowboys seem satisfied enough with Prescott that they will stick with him, but what will that commitment look like in terms of length and money? Again, Dallas has enough cap space to work out an extension with Prescott this offseason and take care of other priorities (i.e., Lawrence) but that doesn't mean it will happen. And what the team decides to do at the position through either the draft or free agency could also offer some insight as to Prescott's future with the Cowboys.